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A lot can happen in 7 minutes
Response times for local agencies rate high, but officials still look to trim time
Kim Bond looks over information on a bank of computer screens at the Hall County 911 Center. - photo by Tom Reed

911: What's your emergency? Multimedia report on local response times


Viewpoint: When emergency responders aren't sure of their jurisdiction

Lynn Egan had not been a Hall County resident for even one day when she had her first encounter with emergency response.

Late last Monday evening, Egan unloaded her belongings, including her pets, into a duplex on East Main Street in Gainesville. Since the power wasn’t yet on at her new home, Egan said she went to her daughter’s house to rest the night from a long day.

But when she returned with her daughter shortly after noon the next day, the duplex on East Main wasn’t as Egan left it.
As she approached the house, Egan smelled smoke. She assumed that with the rain and the chill, the origin of the smell was a fireplace.

“But then, as we came down the hill from my daughter’s house, all the fire trucks were going by,” Egan said. “And then of course we came around the corner of the mill, and saw all the fire trucks on our road. And as we got closer we realized it was our house ...”

Egan’s relatives immediately ran to the firefighters to alert them that animals were inside the house. The firefighters were able to save one cat, but Egan lost two other cats, ages 16 and 13, and a 9-year-old dog.

Egan may have lost another cat had it not been for the timing of both the fire department and Egan’s arrival.

“Their response saved the one pet that we could save,” Egan said.

Hall County firefighters arrived at Egan’s burning home 6 minutes and 39 seconds after they received the first call, according to an incident report provided by the county.

On average, the county department responds to calls in 7 minutes, Fire Chief David Kimbrell said.

And for Gainesville residents, responses to fires in the city limits occur in 5.5 minutes, according to Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada.

Both departments’ response times fall in line with the majority of departments across the United States. Approximately 75 percent of fire departments across the country arrive at structure fires within 8 minutes, according to a 2006 report on national fire response times conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

When injuries are life-threatening, time is even more important.

“The golden hour is the 60 minutes from the time of injury,” said Chad Black, battalion chief for the Hall County Fire Department and the area business manager for Air Methods air ambulances. “Time is very critical for these patients.”

At the time a 911 call is received, paramedics often know by the description of an emergency if a helicopter will be needed to fly an accident victim to a trauma center or specialty hospital.

A helicopter will be put on standby until emergency responders arrive at the scene, where they then can determine within just a few seconds if an injury will require trauma care.

It takes an average of 18 to 20 minutes to fly from Hall County to the nearest level one trauma center, Grady Health System in Atlanta.

Paramedics can work to stabilize and assess injuries, making the extra time on the helicopter worthwhile and getting them to the best facility for their needs as quickly as possible.

Local law enforcement agencies also have acceptable emergency response times. In the first 10 months of 2009, Gainesville police had an average response time of 2 minutes, 36 seconds on all calls. This number shows an improvement over last year; in 2008, the average time was 2:43.

The average response time is higher for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, which answers calls from the southern most tip of the county near Braselton to the far northern edges, near Lumpkin County at the foothills of the Appalachians, and everywhere in between.

So far for 2009, sheriff’s office’s average response time for emergencies is 7:22, a slight improvement over the previous two years, according to data compiled by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. Average non-emergency response times are just under 12 minutes, slightly higher than the year before.

Even at 7:22, the sheriff’s office is below the national average response time of 8 minutes.

As good as they are, officials with fire and law enforcement agencies say response times always could improve. For law enforcement, the threats of staffing cuts brought on by the struggling economy could add time to agency response.

Sheriff’s deputies have already started sending patrol supervisors to respond to calls and prioritize some nonemergency calls to deal with furloughs introduced countywide because of lagging sales tax revenues.

And in the next two months, Gainesville police officers will have to learn to deal with the same loss of staffing. City officials have already said they were trying “to hold the line until things get better.”

“We’re very fortunate to be fully staffed,” said Gainesville Deputy Police Chief Jane Nichols. “Our folks are still able to work full schedules, and it shows.”

Staff writer Stephen Gurr contributed to this report.